Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

His Pal Roy Rogers

Cooley's prowess with the fiddle got him gigs soon after he arrived in Los Angeles, and his ability to sight-read music charts helped make him a first-call player for various bands.

One regular gig was with the Sons of the Pioneers, the country and western group known for its smooth vocal harmonies. Its most famous member, Roy Rogers, had graduated to movies by the time Cooley arrived in Hollywood.

Roy Rogers
Roy Rogers

But a number of people noted a resemblance between Cooley and Rogers — dark hair, thin eyebrows, narrow eyes — and a mutual friend arranged a meeting between the two men at Republic Pictures, where Rogers was under contract.

They hit it off, and Cooley was hired by Republic at $17 a day to work as Rogers' stand-in and occasional stunt double. They also developed a fast friendship that would last for years.

At night, Cooley continued gigging with such western swing bands as Walt Shrum and the Colorado Hillbillies and the Rhythm Rangers.

Western swing was cowboy music — a southwestern-bred hybrid of folk, bluegrass, hillbilly, swing and jazz. Its standard bearers were Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, out of Waco, Texas, and Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, out of Fort Worth.

Like traditional bluegrass, most early western swing bands were composed of singers and stringed instruments — guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo, steel guitar. And like jazz, many western swing compositions were loosely arranged, with solo breaks for several instruments.

The popularity of western swing had begun to grow in the southwest as the Depression set in. During the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Americans in the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri packed up their possessions and made their way west to the Golden State via Route 66.

Some mark the beginning of the western swing craze as the day in 1940 that Bob Wills and his band arrived in Los Angeles to appear in the film Take Me Back to Oklahoma, starring Tex Ritter and his sidekick, Arkansas Slim.

Wills' visit was the western swing equivalent of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

All over southern California, men and women began rummaging through trunks and closets for cowboy hats, boots, string ties and rawhide vests. The Okies donned their southwestern duds and two-stepped out to the ballrooms.

They wanted to hear their old-home music, and fellow Okie Spade Cooley was happy to oblige.

Cooley was working a three-week engagement as a sideman for a cowboy-music trio appearing at Santa Monica's Venice Pier Ballroom, which typically attracted Okies, military men and woman, blue-collar workers and more than a few residents of Farm Security Administration camps.

Cooley was a consummate professional and competent soloist. He certainly was quick with all the western swing fiddle licks. But he was also clearly the best showman on stage.

He was a backslapper with a ready smile, and he had a habit of calling every man he met "son," like the Looney Tunes cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn.

The ballroom manager recognized Cooley's talents as a front man and musical entrepreneur, and he hired him to put together a house band to meet the new demand for western swing. The gig lasted 18 months — a Venice Pier record.

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